Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Conversation with Brian McLaren on Epistemology

Post Note: Below was originally available in the public archives of the now defunct faithmaps discussion group. I've just discovered that those archives are no longer publicly available. Accordingly, i've reposted it below here.

Here is the conversation between Brian and myself ab epistemology. For those
of you who don't know, Brian McLaren was my pastor for 13 years.

Interaction on Epistemology and Christian Faith

[I had sent Brian McLaren a copy of a note I had written to Rodney Clapp
prompted by his

How Firm a Foundation: Can Evangelicals be NonFoundationalists?

@



Thursday 31 May 2001 Note from Brian McLaren

Stephen -- isn't that a great article? I first read it in "The Nature of
Confession." I don't have another email address for Rodney Clapp. I wish I
did.... maybe I can find one. I think he still works for IVP.

I am intrigued by your question to him, though. I wonder if you are
confusing "absolute truth" with "absolute certainty" in your thinking? Do
you really mean that you are holding on to the concept of absolute
certainty?

I don't think you possibly could mean that ... the Bible itself says "we
know in part" (I Cor. 13), right?.... Maybe I'm misreading you? (Gosh ...
maybe you follow [a well-known pastor], that "that which is perfect" in I
Cor 13 is the Bible, so having the Bible means that we no longer know in
part??? No, I don't think so.... Otherwise, why would we be asking these
questions if we already know as we are known?)

So, as soon as you admit that all certainty is relative for us creatures
(i.e. there is more or less of it), then in a way, you have greater freedom
to say, "Yes, there is absolute truth, i.e. truth as God knows it, but for
all us finite creatures, our understanding and confidence about that truth
is in part, limited, relative to our finite perspectives," etc. It almost
feels (in what you write Rodney) that you are assuming that receiving divine
revelation makes one divine. Do you see what I'm saying? (Of course, a lot
of us preachers maybe believe this, unconsciously!!!) In other words, maybe
you're assuming that when God gives revelation, he also gives proper
interpretation of it, plus complete psychological certainty regarding that
interpretation to know it is correct. That would be nice (maybe ...
although it would also mean that God turns us into robots by
mind-control) -- but it doesn't seem to match with either real-life
experience, or Biblical history!

By the way, Kurt Erhardt's [Kurt is a pastor and mutual friend of mine and
Brian's who is working on his Ph.D. in epistemology] mentor, Susan Haack,
has a great term for less-than-certain knowledge in this "chastened
epistemology": she says our best knowledge is "truth-indicative" -- i.e. it
indicates a high likelihood of substantial truth ... She has a great quote
from Wm James' "The Will to Believe," -- "When we give up the doctrine of
objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth
itself." (p.203) I like the way she thus avoids the Scylla of postmodern
despair regarding truth, and the Charybis of modern over-confidence. (By
the way, in the Odyssey, as I recall, even Odysseus couldn't get between
them without casualties....)

Anyway, Stephen, it's great to see how active your thinking is! You are a
constant encouragement to me in this regard. You illustrate "the quest and
hope of truth," as Wm. James says. I am as certain as I am of anything that
God is pleased by that quest and hope!!! -- Brian

On Friday 1 June 2001 I responded with

A very good distinction you're making, very helpful to me, and I largely
concur with two caveats.

1 - My certainty that "God so loved the world that he gave His only Son...."
is as close to absolute as I can get. Can I say my certainty asymptotically
reaches certainty?

(If you're not familar with asymptotes, from Websters:
a straight line associated with a curve such that as a point moves along an
infinite branch of the curve the distance from the point to the line
approaches zero and the slope of the curve at the point approaches the slope
of the line. See for a picture of
this)

I am much, much more certain of that than I am of, say, the Calvinistic
doctrine of Perseverance or my belief in believers baptism. So this
category is not a very large one compared to the set of things I believe
theologically.

2 - But my certainty of God's love is - as I said - pretty nearly complete.
Here's why: it's based on a radical trust in someone else. Now, this kind
of trust is not exactly foundationalist (and please help me along this line
of thought with your response if you think I'm on the right track). And in
this way:

Because of my knowledge of you as a person - more than the sum of
information that I have of you - but because of my *trust* in you - I am
similarly asymptotically certain that you will not stand up on Sunday and
say, "People, you aren't going to believe this: Stephen Shields in an
e-mail this week showed a lack of clarity between the existence of absolute
truth and the perception of absolute truth. He simply shows himself *not*
to be the epistemologist that you might have thought he was. Please take
all his philosophical comments with a grain of salt, and I'd encourage you
over your meals today to discuss this critical distinction." My certainty
of this is not based entirely on empirical evidence. That is there, but the
bridge to asymptotic certainty is my *trust* of your character. I'm
thinking of one of Clapp's subtitles (or maybe Rob put it in)...something
like "The False Choice between Objective and Subjective Knowledge." In
other words, maybe our certainty of God can only be achieved when we trust
Him. This makes our knowledge transcend the anthropocentric foundationalism
that began with Descartes as it now achieves personal knowledge (I haven't
read Polanyi's book yet of that same title, but I wonder if that is what
he's talking about too).

Maybe that is why we are spinning so much in the sand on this
epistemological thing. We are trying to discuss it outside of the context
of a personal relationship with the Divine which is a crucial component.

What do you think?

On Friday 1 June Brian responded with:

YES! YES! Exactly ... I agree 100%.

But Stephen, when you say the whole thing is based on personal trust or (to
use less foundationalist terms) revolves around trust or flows from trust
...then you are OUT of the Enlightenment certainty game altogether.

The absolute certainty "they" are talking about can NEVER involve trust. It
must involve rationality working in a closed system. So, for you to say
that you're trying to defend or preserve certainty, and you are doing so by
resorting to trust in God ... then you (in the rationalists' definition --
and they're the ones framing the argument) aren't even in the ballpark
anymore.

Now, for you, rational certainty isn't even the foundation any more ... the
foundation (if we want to use this language) has shifted to a personal faith
relationship. That's Christian ... and when you go there, why even talk
about "objective truth" or "absolute certainty" or "foundationalism" or
anything of the sort, because within our story, in our framework, built on
our foundation (if you will) of personal relationship, that language is
foreign. Our story works just fine (did for thousands of years!) without
their language and categories. And our language is foreign to their system
too. It's like bringing in terms like melody and harmony and tone to a
discussion of mathematics.

I think your inability to separate the two languages shows how you (like all
of us) have been thoroughly trained as if the two were one. Same with me.
I remember when I first began to realize that enlightenment rationalism and
the gospel were not only not the same thing, but where two different stories
...
and here's what hit me at that point (I don't know if this will help you at
all, but it really helped me):

There IS no epistemological solution to the problem of nontheistic
rationalism. There is no "neutral ground" where you can try to achieve
certainty APART FROM A NARRATIVE. And that's when I realized that to try to
prove certainty apart from our narrative is actually a kind of betrayal of
our narrative, as if our narrative needed to be buttressed by "their"
language to be credible. The fact is, without our narrative, their whole
system starts to disintegrate. (Francis Schaeffer used to talk about this.
He called it "cheating" -- that naturalists/rationalists "steal" meaning and
morality from our gospel to try to keep their system functional.)

Anyway, I don't know if this is making any sense. For me, this line of
thought pushes me to realize that narratives are far more profound than
propositions, because without the narrative to give context, the
propositions are just kind of floating and up for grabs and up for anyone's
interpretation.

But here's the rub ... narratives can only be grasped by a rational process
that includes faith.

So, faith (which is wrapped up with personal trust and a sense of a story,
narrative) is more "fundamental" than knowledge (i.e. propositions which can
be rationally debated). This is what Polanyi and others have been saying.
And, of course, so has the Bible HTH -- Brian

End of EMail Exchange

Where I am today:

This exchange was helpful to me. I still talk about objective truth and
certainty and believe that they are valid categories when defined
theocentrically. I would say that Brian's emphasis on narrative would be
subsumed under what we've discussed here as transpropositionality.

Anyway, perhaps this will be helpful to some.

Stephen Shields
sshields@faithmaps.org
http://www.faithmaps.org
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/faithmaps/
http://faithmaps.blogspot.com
"tools for navigating theology,
leadership, discipleship and
church life in postmodernity"
over 500 links and articles

21 comments:

Sivin Kit said...

thanks for reproducing this. I found it helpful too reading it again. I think may of the debates and discussion surrounding epistemology especially around Brian's writings is first and foremost revolved about differing categories before the specific content of the subject matter.

Anonymous said...

hi stephen,

thank you for reposting that exchange. im just beginning to listen to these conversations and im trying to find my way here. much appreciated.

brad grinnen

Pastor Astor said...

Great exchange! This all rings very true to me. I have been thinking of truth in this same way, partly because I find it strange to have a category (truth) that in some way is greater than God. God IS truth, and thus truth is relational.

postmodernegro said...

Stephen,

Thanks for posting this.

In our recent exchange on MacArthur's criticism of those of us in the ECM, Brian in particular I am struck by two things:

1. The conflation of a modernist epistemologicaly methodology with a supposed 'biblical' epistemology. As if the Bible lays out a proper epistemological method to discuss 'truth'. You see this when arbitrary references of scripture are pointed out that supposedly defend the idea that the bible supports a modernist methodology of epistemology (any scripture with the word 'truth' in it is used...amazing!). So...any reference to the word 'truth' in a verse of scripture is used to justify the claim that a proper, biblical epistemological method would be Cartesian, Foundationalist, or Positivistic. To be Cartesian, it is assumed, is to be Biblical.

2. The difficulty in pointing this out to those who hold on to a foundationalist epistemological method. Those of us who are articulate the Christian tradition in a more postmodern way are deemed heretics because we refuse to play along with the language-games of Modernity. I think the language we use trips people up. Also the title 'revisionist' is difficult as well and can lead to further misunderstandings.

By your categorization I'd be considered a revisionist. The challenge with this term is that I could read that as saying I am a part of a project that seeks to revise Christianity or the Christian tradition. When in actuality I'm not. What some of us are doing is revisiting the epistemological methods used to understand Christianity in our postmodern context. Methods often undergirded by foundationalist epistemological methods.

The use of the term 'revisionist' is misleading, in my reading, primarily because it is more of a DE-COUPLING of the Christian tradition from foundationalist epistemological methods...as much as that is possible. It is experimental because a post-foundationalist (post-modern/post-colonialist) form and expression of Christianity will appear weird to those forms of Christianity deeply wedded to modernist epistemological methods.

What will appear to be heterodox or heretical is really, in many cases, an expression of Christianity not locked into a foundationalist epistemological method.

Another thing that may be difficult for those critical of the ECM is the fact that we don't assume that there is a proper 'biblical' epistemological method in the first place...given that the Bible was written in a pre-modern era where epistemological methodology was not a part of the conversation.

Note: If you do see a conversation, within the narrative of the Bible, where there is an actual conversation regarding proper epistemological methods let me know. As of yet I haven't seen one.

Great conversation keep it comin'

Ant

postmodernegro said...

Another thing is this:

I can see how we are misunderstood as total revisionist by the fact that some of us are not just seeking to be 'postmodern'for its own sake. Many of us are returning to pre-modern philosophical/theological conversations (Augustine, Anselm, etc.) to find a third or middle path between positivism and postmodern relativism. This will require some of us to 'talk' about the faith in a way that will not be at home with those deeply wedded to a modernist epistemological method.

Foundationlism is a part of the foundations of some of the most dehumanizing socio-political formations of the 20th-century. Hence, the reason for much of the work of postmodern philosophers (e.g. Derrida, Foucault, etc.). Their work was attempting to deconstruct the philosophical scheme that made it easy to create de-humanizing social and political formations. Their work was undergirded by a redemptive motive. Strangely this aspect of postmodern thought is conspicuously missing in many of the critiques I have read on the ECM and postmodern thought in particular. Social justice seems to be at the heart of most postmodern thought...by an attempt to demystify the political and theological claims that gave credence de-humanizing practices. This aspect of postmodern thought is often missing. Which means a couple of things to people like me in this conversation.

1. The critics aren't reading postmodern thought thoroughly enough nor thinking it through.
2. Because of this those of us labeled revisionist are misunderstood as totally 'changing' Christian theology or coming up with something 'new'. When in actuality we are challenging North American Christianity's uncritical embrace of epistemologies that made imperialism, colonialism, and racism easy to live with.

Pastor Astor said...

I´m starting to realize that responding to the call to respond was not that great an idea. I have had a lot of hatemail today questioning everything from my sanity to my salvation. I hadn´t realized McArthur was the forth person of the godhead? Is this an extreme expression of evangelicalism, or is this tone of debate the standard? I also understand that several of the people of Slice is active on McArthurs site - is this a small group or a major part of american evangelicalism?

postmodernegro said...

Pastor Astor,

The challenge with dialogue is that one assumes one is talking in a thoroughly 'biblical' way and not in a particular American Evangelical way as it relates to the faith AND those of us in the ECM are talking in an 'unbiblical' even heretical way as it relates to Christianity. The difficulty, to me it seems, is that some of our conversation partners assume their particular idiom from which they speak the Christian faith comes directly from heaven. I have found it a challenge to conversate with folks who assume their Christian grammar comes straight from the throne of Heaven. Very challenging.

How do we get beyond that impasse?

Pastor Astor said...

Postmodernegro,
I have no idea. I am just chocked that people who don't know me can express such hatred. There has been times in my life when I have deserved the verbal equivalent of a good beating, but I have never experienced anything even close to this. I am seriously thinking about changing my email-address.

Stephen said...

pastor astor,

Hey, I'm glad it's been helpful!

Stephen said...

Hi Anthony,

Regarding

"The conflation of a modernist epistemologicaly methodology with a supposed 'biblical' epistemology. As if the Bible lays out a proper epistemological method to discuss 'truth'. You see this when arbitrary references of scripture are pointed out that supposedly defend the idea that the bible supports a modernist methodology of epistemology (any scripture with the word 'truth' in it is used...amazing!). So...any reference to the word 'truth' in a verse of scripture is used to justify the claim that a proper, biblical epistemological method would be Cartesian, Foundationalist, or Positivistic. To be Cartesian, it is assumed, is to be Biblical."

My own concern with a Cartesian epistemology is that it presupposes an anthropocentric epistemology as a starting point and it seems to me to be too triumphant when it comes to the ability and reach of man's mind. I see both of these presuppositions, in fact, as contradicted by Scripture.

To your epistemological concerns, I would be interested in any specific examples you might cite for

"You see this when arbitrary references of scripture are pointed out that supposedly defend the idea that the bible supports a modernist methodology of epistemology"

whether by MacArthur or by anyone else.

Regarding your discussion of revisionism (or a putative revisionism), might it be helpful if I adapt Stetzer's category (not sure if he would follow me here or not) and apply the term to those who wish to revise accepted Christian doctrine settled prior to the birth of Descartes?

Stephen said...

Hi Anthony,

Regarding

"When in actuality we are challenging North American Christianity's uncritical embrace of epistemologies that made imperialism, colonialism, and racism easy to live with."

And that's worth dethroning. I would only add that prejudice seeks its own rationale and predates the birth of the Continental Postmodern thinkers! :)

I submit that the plain reading of Scripture itself (and I'm sure you agree)sows the seeds for a true egalitarianism and social justice (Philemon, Rom 10:12, 1 Cor 12:13, Gal 3:28,etc).

Stephen said...

sorry about the hate mail, pastor astor. I recently gave a talk on gnostic christianity (in a da vinci code seminar in which I was asked to participate before the movie came out) and someone asked me something that related to calvinism. later in a message on slice apparently this same person told the story of their asking me that question and my (and I can't recall their exact rhetoric) shaking in my boots when they asked me about calvinism. trouble is - i'm a calvinist!

brian mclaren has a great bromide on this: view every critique, criticism, or complaint as a request for assistance.

postmodernegro said...

"My own concern with a Cartesian epistemology is that it presupposes an anthropocentric epistemology as a starting point and it seems to me to be too triumphant when it comes to the ability and reach of man's mind. I see both of these presuppositions, in fact, as contradicted by Scripture."

But to claim that one possesses a 'theocentric' epistemology doesn't guarantee one is speaking the mind of God. To say rhetorically one possesses a theocentric epistemology doesn't seem to guarantee success in escaping some degree of anthropocentrism....by simple observation: we are using human words to make such a declaration.

"To your epistemological concerns, I would be interested in any specific examples you might cite for

"You see this when arbitrary references of scripture are pointed out that supposedly defend the idea that the bible supports a modernist methodology of epistemology"

Read the end of D.A. Carson's book "Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church". And the number of prominent critiques that are adept at pointing out what the "Bible says" and what the "Emerging church says" regarding truth...assuming of course that the Bible affirms 'one' particular epistemological method.

"Regarding your discussion of revisionism (or a putative revisionism), might it be helpful if I adapt Stetzer's category (not sure if he would follow me here or not) and apply the term to those who wish to revise accepted Christian doctrine settled prior to the birth of Descartes?

I prefer Len Sweet's and Robert Webber's term of ancient-future. But ultimately it doesn't matter what tag we use...people will interpret tags according to the tribe they inhabit.

"And that's worth dethroning. I would only add that prejudice seeks its own rationale and predates the birth of the Continental Postmodern thinkers!"

No doubt. That's partly why I'm a part of the ECM. To remind postmodern folks that black folks have been postmodern since 1619. Black Christians have always held a hermenuetics of suspicion to the White Christian metanarrative!

Alot of my critique of the North American Christian metanarrative is informed by the geneaological work of Cornel West. If you get a chance get his classic book "Prophesy Deliverance". Especially his chapter where he gives a geneaology of Modern Racism...connecting it to modernist epistemological methodology and scientism.

"I submit that the plain reading of Scripture itself (and I'm sure you agree)sows the seeds for a true egalitarianism and social justice (Philemon, Rom 10:12, 1 Cor 12:13, Gal 3:28,etc)"

Unfortunately, what is plainly read oftentimes becomes the seeds for quite the opposite. Consult the writings of 19th-century abolitionist when they would challenge the 'plain' readings of scriptures by slave owning Christians.

Stephen said...

Mornin' Anthony!

as:

"But to claim that one possesses a 'theocentric' epistemology doesn't guarantee one is speaking the mind of God. To say rhetorically one possesses a theocentric epistemology doesn't seem to guarantee success in escaping some degree of anthropocentrism....by simple observation: we are using human words to make such a declaration."

A theocentric epistemology merely presupposes based on our limitation that God is competent to speak in such a way to be understood and is successful in doing so. You are correct that holding such a belief does not guarantee that we will not be inconsistent. In fact, God reveals that man has a great capacity for such an inconsistency! :)

as:

"Read the end of D.A. Carson's book "Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church". And the number of prominent critiques that are adept at pointing out what the "Bible says" and what the "Emerging church says" regarding truth...assuming of course that the Bible affirms 'one' particular epistemological method."

I'll check that out; I haven't read Becoming Conversant.

I had written:

"Regarding your discussion of revisionism (or a putative revisionism), might it be helpful if I adapt Stetzer's category (not sure if he would follow me here or not) and apply the term to those who wish to revise accepted Christian doctrine settled prior to the birth of Descartes?

you commented

"I prefer Len Sweet's and Robert Webber's term of ancient-future. But ultimately it doesn't matter what tag we use...people will interpret tags according to the tribe they inhabit."

I guess I was trying to life the conversation above the modern-postmodern epistemological tension entirely since many of the issues being discussed in the revisionist thread of the ec conversation predate the rise of modernity.

as:

No doubt. That's partly why I'm a part of the ECM. To remind postmodern folks that black folks have been postmodern since 1619. Black Christians have always held a hermenuetics of suspicion to the White Christian metanarrative!"

:) a fair point.

as:

Alot of my critique of the North American Christian metanarrative is informed by the geneaological work of Cornel West. If you get a chance get his classic book "Prophesy Deliverance". Especially his chapter where he gives a geneaology of Modern Racism...connecting it to modernist epistemological methodology and scientism."

I will and thanks for the recommendation.

I had written:

"I submit that the plain reading of Scripture itself (and I'm sure you agree)sows the seeds for a true egalitarianism and social justice (Philemon, Rom 10:12, 1 Cor 12:13, Gal 3:28,etc)"

You rejoined:

Unfortunately, what is plainly read oftentimes becomes the seeds for quite the opposite. Consult the writings of 19th-century abolitionist when they would challenge the 'plain' readings of scriptures by slave owning Christians.

Another fair point. Earlier in this post I was beginning to write that a theocentric epistemology must be combined with - and I can't find a single term here so I'll pile on some phrases instead - love of God, love of the other, and humility. Those 4 characteristics working in partnership create a powerful hermeneutic.



Without

Anonymous said...

hi pastor astor,

"I have been thinking of truth in this same way, partly because I find it strange to have a category (truth) that in some way is greater than God. God IS truth, and thus truth is relational."

this is why i was initially drawn to Iraneaus.

hi anthony,

"What will appear to be heterodox or heretical is really, in many cases, an expression of Christianity not locked into a foundationalist epistemological method."

absolutely. however, i have yet to successfully use this point to convince my foundationalist friends of what they might learn from the ecm.

"This will require some of us to 'talk' about the faith in a way that will not be at home with those deeply wedded to a modernist epistemological method."

again, making it 'near' impossible to have a dialogue with my foundationalist friends without having to sift through their seemingly 'hate-filled' comments to find what it is for which they are really searching.

"Social justice seems to be at the heart of most postmodern thought...by an attempt to demystify the political and theological claims that gave credence de-humanizing practices."

while i see a continual thread of this in postmodern thought...i'm still not convinced that social justice is 'at the heart' of it. please don't misread me. i hope it is of the core (at least in the ecm as it seems to be in the gospel) but im not certain yet that it is core to postmodern thought.

"I have found it a challenge to conversate with folks who assume their Christian grammar comes straight from the throne of Heaven. Very challenging.

How do we get beyond that impasse?"

might i suggest that we revisit stephen's previous article and post, 'theological disagreement and the emerging church', concerning the conversation between the evangelicals and emc in 'next wave'.

http://the-next-wave-ezine.info/issue96/index.cfm?id=19&ref=COVERSTORY

sorry, i don't know how to link in blog yet. there are 4 links in this article at the end which i have found extremely helpful. my experience with my evangelical friends had led me to believe that conversation was not possible. stephen's work here has changed my thoughts and i have hope not only that my friends will converse with me but that they may one day understand why i have an affinity for the ecm. (sorry for the shameless plug stephen, im not buttkissing, it's not my style).

pastor astor,

i would especially recomend that you visit stephen's article as it appears you are under heavy attack. and i would also remind you who the real enemy is. Ephesians 6:12.

hi stephen,

"brian mclaren has a great bromide on this: view every critique, criticism, or complaint as a request for assistance."

as im late to seemingly all conversations (i feel that way most of the time) i'm sure i've missed many opportunities to flesh out brian's comment and how we practically put his 'bromide' into use. but i would covet the opportunity to better discover how i might do this.

again, thank you stephen and anthony for a great conversation here.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

could the moderator please remove my second post of the same and leave the first one. sorry everyone, amateur here.

Stephen said...

brad,

i'm glad you found those articles helpful! as you probably know, david wayne (a prominent reformed blogger) and I are planning to initiate just such a conversation early in 2007.

Anonymous said...

stephen,

i actually was not aware that you and david were going to begin a conversation of the sorts. will this be happening in a face to face meeting? online? via phone? also, will we be able to be kept up to speed without jeopordizing said conversation? how should we be praying? i'm full of lots of questions as you can tell.

Stephen said...

brad, you can read more about this conversation here and here . David and I are still working through the details, but I anticipate that the discourse will occur by submitted papers and responses and - yes - these will be made publicly.

knsheppard said...

Stephen, sorry I'm skipping the comments. Just don't have the time to read everything. But I wanted to point something out as an historian of the Enlightenment which I think Brian's got wrong. He talks about Enlightenment certainty. I'm not convinced there is such a thing, or no one thing which Enlightenment thinkers thought in reference to certainty and knowledge. I'm reviewing a couple of books about Enlightenment philosophy at the moment and am struck that Brian has been a bit too easy with his characterization here. While the question of certainty is nonetheless pertinent, slicing the history up this way does a disservice to his otherwise thoughtful response. For what it's worth.